The Man Who Watched the World End

by: Chris Dietzel

I think every review I read of this book started the same way: This is a very unusual book.

"In a world where," as the movie promo always begins, it's hard to believe that it hasn't already been done, the writer has accomplished something remarkable: he really has written a book that is one of a kind.

Now, having said that, I'm going to totally reverse myself and say, actually, this book has been written, stylistically, at least, many times over. It's a diary.

But what a diary!

Imagine that babies begin to be born at the extreme end of autism - completely un-reactive to the world around them. They don't blink. They don't move. They don't eat. Their bodies function "normally," if normally can be said to be to simply sit and stare. That is to say, they survive, if nutrients are artificially fed to them. If they are provided adequate medical supervision. But otherwise, they simply exist.

The world begins to call them "Blocks."

Every apocalyptic story has its end proposition: disease, nuclear holocaust, solar storm, zombie-mechs-from-Planet-9. All that does is limit the specifics of what the survivors will have to endure. How they endure it is what makes these End Days epics either interesting or time-wasters.

The "how" of it all tells us much about the writer, both in terms of imagination and outlook. Typically, there is some division among those who live: the ones who devolve into animals, and the ones who find the strength and need to carry on with dignity, even when there is nothing left - not even hope.

In his awesome but depressing novel, The Road, Cormac McCarthy plays with that concept of hope - and I came away wondering if hope is always a good thing. Other writers have envisioned a world in which the survivors have a chance to hit the "reset" button and try again - with a little luck, maybe better this time around.

In that regard, Dietzel's novel has more in common with The Road than, say,  Alas Babylon, one of the early post-nuclear novels in which a colony of survivors confront the good and evil in mankind, and try to remake the world with a heavier emphasis on the good.

In this story, as in The Road, there is no hope for recovery. Humankind is simply slowly dying out. In The Road, all of life on the planet has reach its end. In The Man Who, one of the interesting twists is it seems to be only the humans who have been afflicted with breeding their own demise. The fact that the animals - wild and domestic - remain, creates a final, ironic twist to the tale - but I won't give that away!

The narrator, the diarist, is the older brother of a block. As such, he is one of the final generation of normals born. Eventually, every baby born is a block - and even if there were parents will to risk giving birth to one of these afflicted children, there comes a time when the remaining normal people are simply too old to procreate. It's here that we pick up the story.

Bit by bit, family groups have gathered in small communities, collapsing in on themselves as the population begins to dwindle, by natural death or suicide. In many post-apocalyptic worlds, there are, as noted, often The Bad Guys and The Good Guys. This is usually due to a lack of resources to support the remaining population.

Dietzel has sidestepped this problem by creating a synthesizer for food and medicines and so on - before they die off, the scientists of the world find a means to supply the blocks and their caretakers with what they'll need to live out their miserable existences. So there is really no need for anyone to go bad and start preying on the weak.

The real challenge of the book is that there are so many people willing to care for the blocks. A reader can't help but wonder how he would react should he be left alone with a block to take care of. Some people do get rid of them, either by neglect or abandonment or outright murder. A sticking point is, of course, that nobody can be sure whether a block is a human or not - do they think? Do they dream? Might they wake up one day and say hello? What would you do if it were your little brother or sister? Your child?

A bigger question: what does it mean to be human, and what are our obligations to our families, and the greater family of man?

I'm not sure we're supposed to have a Final Answer. The point of the book is the narrator's examination of his life, and the life of his brother, and his decision about the meaning of it all. Why even bother with a diary when there will be nobody around to read it? It's a bit like scratching "I was here" on a tree in the forest.

But this book is definitely worth the walk in the woods.


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